Wet Houses – Giving up on Problem Drinkers

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Today the Addiction Reporter discusses “wet houses” which highlight a disturbing reality of alcoholism: it is a fatal disease for many who are unable to recovery.

The “wet house” is a new approach that some states are adopting to deal with long-term problem drinkers.  Alcoholics are given shelter and basic services, but instead of entering a treatment program they are allowed to keep drinking.  They are essentially being warehoused until they die from acute alcoholism.

This controversial approach has been tried in Seattle, Washington and throughout the state of Minnesota.  The wet house approach saves these states money, costing about $13,000 to $18,000 per resident for annual support compared to the higher cost of housing chronic alcoholics in jail, hospitals or county detox centers.

surrendering to alcoholismSaint Anthony Residence in St. Paul, which is operated jointly by the state of Minnesota and Catholic Charities, houses 60 men who are in the process of drinking themselves to death.  Each resident is provided with a 12-by-12 foot private apartment.  There are no counselors or group therapy sessions.  The residents live on government assistance and spend all of their time either drinking or trying to get money to buy alcohol.   When money runs low, many resort to begging on the street or drinking mouthwash (which is made with up to 28 percent alcohol).
Local police know the residents of Saint Anthony’s.  When they find them passed out on the sidewalk or in a park, they return them to the wet house rather than taking them to the emergency room or a county detox center.  The wet house has a resident nurse who monitors chronic health problems like diabetes, which helps keep residents out of the emergency room.

The residents of Saint Anthony’s have spent decades drinking and have each experienced years of homelessness, failed treatment programs and jail time.  They have no family or friends to depend on, having cut themselves off from every relationship due to drinking.  The atmosphere at Saint Anthony’s is not festive.  A recent article in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press compared the facility to Death Row.  A few men have moved away from Saint Anthony’s to enter residential treatment programs, but most stay until they die.  The death rate among resident is almost 10 percent per year.

Dr. Stephen Miles, a University of Minnesota professor of bioethics and medicine, compares wet houses to hospitals that allow cancer patients to go outside to smoke.  They are allowed to choose their own behavior, even if it is self-destructive.  He calls wet houses “hospices for alcoholics” and sees the benefit in the humane treatment they provide to people who would otherwise be living on the street.

Most experts in the field of rehabilitation are adamantly opposed to the wet house approach.  William C. Moyers, a vice president of the Hazelden Treatment Centers, has called wet houses places of despair and death.  According to Moyers, “It is never too late for someone to get help.  Just because there are people who have been through treatment before does not mean we can write them off.”